Mass Observation and the Emotional Energy Consumer

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Understanding how people lived with energy in the past is becoming increasingly important as policy-makers are paying more attention to the social and cultural factors that condition energy consumption and fix energy demand. This is challenging historians to demonstrate the ways in which energy systems are more than just physical infrastructures set into the built environment but activated by users with complex emotional lives. This article goes some way toward developing this history, building up a profile of the emotional energy consumer. To do this it draws upon a collection of material from the Mass Observation Project (MOP), University of Sussex, which provides unique access to the emotions British users brought to their energy systems. Drawing upon a series of Directives written in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the article considers how energy demand was shaped by the complex emotional cultures of Thatcherite Britain. The article proposes two different approaches to do this. The first approach considers how observers rooted emotions about energy in longer individual and social timeframes. This uncovers the importance of time in fostering emotions toward energy, from the lived experience of transitions, to the social memory of World War II and circulating rhetoric about the future. The second approach considers how emotions — such as sentimentality, nostalgia, love and fear — structured energy choices and led to particular configurations of energy use in the home. By demonstrating how emotion mediated between observers and their energy systems this article argues for the necessity of developing histories of energy focused not upon energy systems but instead centre the complex subjectivities of users as well as their emotional cultures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)423-449
JournalCanadian Journal of History
Issue number3
Early online date17 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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